Despite no corporate money pledges, Democratic federal candidates keep taking it

Reprinted from New Mexico in Depth

While every Democrat running for federal office in New Mexico this year pledged to not accept money from corporate political action committees, they still benefit from corporate giving.

Funneled to their campaigns from intermediary PACs that gather corporate money and then redirect it to candidates for office, the donations shine a light on the complications Democrats face when attempting to distance themselves from corporate special interests while still raising enough money to run winning campaigns.

Since the landmark Citizens United vs. FEC Supreme Court ruling in 2010– which opened political campaigns to unrestricted outside spending in elections by corporations, nonprofits, unions, and other organizations—a movement to enact reforms that would limit corporate influence in elections has grown, and found a home within the Democratic Party.

One group, called End Citizens United, encourages candidates to pledge not to accept donations from corporate PACs. Federal rules already prohibit candidates from taking donations from corporations directly.

In New Mexico, Democratic Reps. Xochitl Torres Small in the southern 2nd congressional district, Deb Haaland in the Albuquerque metro area’s 1st district, and Democratic hopeful Teresa Fernandez Leger in the northern 3rd district, have all taken the pledge. Also forgoing corporate PAC donations is Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, who is giving up his seat in the House to run for the U.S. Senate.

But despite the pledges, hundreds of thousands of dollars from corporations are flowing into their campaign coffers through other types of PACs that raise corporate money. Some belong to their colleagues in the U.S. House or Senate, referred to as leadership PACs. Others are trade association PACs, some of which represent small businesses and professionals while others represent industries dominated by big corporations.

“Democrats criticize corporate political activity and often promise not to take donations from corporations. But that is where leadership PACs come in handy,” said Michael Rocca, professor of political science at the University of New Mexico. “Candidates can take the popular position against corporate money and against Citizens United, but then enjoy the benefit of generous corporate donations.”

Leadership PACs

For decades, the Federal Election Commission has allowed current and former members of Congress to maintain PACs separate from their official campaign committees, often for the purpose of helping their colleagues. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the lawmakers behind these so-called leadership PACs typically have two primary goals: currying influence with other members of Congress through donations, and covering expenses that can’t be footed by their campaigns or congressional offices.

According to Issue One, a nonprofit organization that seeks to reduce the role of money in politics, over 85% of members of Congress maintain a leadership PAC.

“In most cases, the corporation, labor union or trade association is giving to one lawmaker and then that lawmaker gets to call the shots about where that money goes,” said Michael Beckel, research director at Issue One.

With significantly higher contribution limits– they’re able to give $5,000 per candidate versus $2,800 from individuals–leadership and other PACs act as significant conduits for money, and the influence that comes with it.

“[Members of Congress] have a lot to gain from raising this money for their party,” said Rocca. “They can use the money to ask for something in return from more junior colleagues, like their loyalty.”

In New Mexico, federal officeholders are Democrats, and several maintain leadership PACs.

Congressman Ben Ray Lujan has long been a major fundraiser, chairing the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, a fundraising organization for House Democrats, from 2014 until the party won its current majority in 2018. This year, he’s leaving the House in a bid to replace Sen. Tom Udall, who’s retiring. He took the End Citizens United pledge in May 2019 to not accept corporate PAC money, and his Turquoise PAC in 2020 is largely dominated by trade associations funds. But in the months prior to his pledge, he raked in about $150,000 in corporate PAC money which he did not return.

Sen. Tom Udall’s Southwest Leadership Fund continues to accept corporate donations, although in 2020 his PAC is smaller than years past, signaling his retirement. Most funds in Rep. Deb Haaland’s Fierce PAC originate from tribes.

Rep. Xochitl Torres Small does not have a leadership PAC. Torres Small is defending her seat in southern New Mexico, largely considered a tossup by political analysts. While she’s taken the End Citizen United pledge, she’s still benefited from over $313,000 in donations from leadership PACs as well as campaign accounts from colleagues, many of which have accepted corporate PAC donations. She’s also received over $52,000 from corporate-aligned trade associations. Individual donations currently make up 69% of Torres Small’s contributions.

Then there’s Sen. Martin Heinrich, not up for re-election this year, whose Lobo PAC is a significant conduit this year for corporate PAC money to other candidates.

Lobo PAC has accepted tens of thousands of dollars in PAC donations from Comcast, Google, Hewlett Packard, Microsoft, and others. According to an analysis by New Mexico in Depth, Lobo PAC received 52% of its funding in the last two years from corporations.

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